Should skinny-fat people bulk or cut? The answer is: both.
Skinny-fat people should build muscle while burning fat. This process of changing your muscle-to-fat ratio is generally called body recomposition.
Now, you may think this is an oxymoron. If you can’t even build muscle while eating a bulking diet (calorie surplus), how could you possibly build muscle while burning fat (calorie deficit)?
Wouldn’t that just make it even harder to build muscle? Doesn’t that go against everything else I’ve seen on the internet?
On the surface, it might seem that way. But if you look at the nuances, it’s not actually controversial to state that you can build muscle in a calorie deficit. In fact, it’s quite well documented, and it occurs in almost every muscle-building study.
When a group of people are put on a good weight lifting program without being told to eat in a calorie deficit or surplus, most of them stay about the same weight but experience simultaneous fat loss and muscle growth.
As a result, all of the top researchers know for a fact that body recomposition isn’t just possible, it’s incredibly common.
For instance, here’s a quote from the leading muscle-building researcher, Dr Brad Schoenfeld:
You can build muscle while losing body fat. You can’t maximize muscle growth while losing body fat. This is an important distinction.
–Dr Brad Schoenfeld
Here’s another quote from Menno Henselmans, a statistician who specializes in fat loss and muscle-building research:
Gaining muscle on a weight loss diet is not only possible, it should be expected for most people on a serious program.
As long as the stimulus for muscle growth is carefully designed and customized, your body will find a way to get bigger.
–Menno Henselmans (of Bayesian Bodybuilding)
And, finally, Dr Eric Helm, another top researcher, competitive natural bodybuilders, and respected bodybuilding coach, said that it’s possible as well. I’m paraphrasing and butchering his words a bit, but essentially he said that energy is needed to build muscle, yes, but that skinny-fat guys already have lots of energy at their disposal—their fat.
So as you can see, this claim of building muscle at the same time as burning fat isn’t really all that controversial.
The bad news about body recomposition: it’s slow
The biggest downside of body recomposition is that it’s a slower process. You’ll build muscle more slowly compared to aggressive bulking. And you’ll also burn fat more slowly compared to a deeper calorie deficit.
The good news, though, is that every morning you can wake up a little bit leaner, and a little bit stronger.
So skinny-fat people should do body recomposition until they get lean enough that they could do a lean bulk (small calorie surplus) should they want to continue getting bigger.
The basics of body recomposition
To burn fat, we need to be in a calorie deficit. That means that your body isn’t getting enough energy through what it’s eating, and it will need to take energy from your fat to make up for it.
To build muscle, we’ll need to be lifting weights and eating enough daily protein.
The problem is that many people lose muscle in a calorie deficit, as I did when first learning how to burn fat.
One reason this happens is that when you remove calories from your diet, you inadvertently remove protein. For example, you might be eating a bowl of muesli cereal with milk in the morning, and you notice that it’s a lot of energy, so you cut that out of your day. But even though it had a lot of energy, you may have just cut out anywhere from 15–20g of protein.
Another reason is that, for whatever reason, when we’re in a calorie deficit, more daily protein is needed. Our body is always going through a process of muscle growth and muscle breakdown to keep our muscles healthy and operating properly. When we’re in a calorie deficit, more muscle is broken down (we’re not sure why). So we need to eat even more protein compared to being in calorie maintenance (weight is steady) or a calorie surplus (weight gain.)
Another factor that can affect our gains is how often we eat protein. Every time we have a protein-rich meal, a little bit of muscle growth is triggered. Around 20–40 grams triggers an optimal amount of muscle growth. Not as much muscle growth as weight training, but we’re also stimulating these spikes in muscle growth much more often than we’re lifting weights—every time we eat a protein-rich meal.
Time-restricted eating like intermittent fasting is popular right now, and many people are cutting out a meal—usually breakfast. This means that their body loses one meal, or normally 25% of the calories. And that’s a perfectly fine way to get into a calorie deficit. But they also miss an opportunity to trigger muscle growth with a protein-rich meal. Our body prefers to have a steady influx of protein throughout the day for the most efficient use of it. For example, it’d be better for muscle building to have 30g of protein four times a day rather than a 30g lunch and 90g at dinner. That way, you trigger maximal amounts of muscle growth four times instead of only twice. (Should skinny-fat people do intermittent fasting?)
Plus, the skinny-fat person may also have a smaller stomach—just like the lean skinny person. So if he has missed a window of protein intake in the morning, not only will he need more protein, but it’s much more difficult to hit his lofty protein goals.
Another reason skinny-fat people get weaker as they cut calories is because the importance of good sleep increases as you eat less energy.
While getting a good night’s sleep every night is always important for our general health, it becomes even more crucial for skinny-fat people who are trying to build muscle while losing fat. In a calorie deficit, your sleep could mean the difference between losing or gaining muscle.
A 2011 study found that poor sleep could influence losing almost twice as much muscle mass while in a 700 calorie deficit.
A 2020 study found that teaching people how to improve their sleep caused simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss when combined with weight training, but doing weight training alone did not.
Lastly, a lot of skinny-fat people are newer to working out and haven’t locked in their lifting habit yet. They might be working out 3x a week and doing pretty good. But the moment they drop their calories (and inadvertently their protein), they might become a lot more tired, their metabolism begins to slow, and they might feel achier from worse recovery (especially from overdoing it with long-gym sessions).
It’s common to miss a workout session or two. The problem is that if you eat in a calorie deficit while missing workouts, it’s a recipe for even greater losses of muscle and strength.
Low calories and no lifting = more muscle loss.
Skinny-fat people ought to try body recomposition. To do that, they’ll need to find a way to:
- Lower their calories enough to get into a calorie deficit.
- Increase their protein intake despite eating less energy (calories).
- Keep up with lifting weights despite eating less energy.
- Get more sunshine to allow their hormones to work properly. Sunshine stimulates POMC, a precursor hormone that regulates our appetite and body weight set point, vitamin D is correlated with testosterone, nitric oxide improves blood flow and nutrient delivery. Sunshine also improves sleep, which leads us to…
- Improve their sleep to allow their hormones (melatonin, etc.) to work properly to burn more fat while building muscle.
Learning how to do that will allow skinny-fat men and women to succeed with their body recomposition and allow them to build muscle while getting leaner at the exact same time. Those who are skinny-fat won’t need to be stuck with the frustrating (and endless) cycles of cut, bulk, cut, bulk!